Mount Harvard, together with its companion Mount Columbia, forms a large, high massif 18 kilometres northwest of Buena Vista. Harvard is Colorado’s third highest peak (4395m) and therefore frequently climbed. Due to a terrible snowstorm I wisely decided to postpone my climb, hoping the weather would improve the next day. And it did...
Waiting out a snowstorm
It was Sep 14 and early in the morning, when I peered out of my tent. Low dark clouds obscured the view and I was not sure what to do. I had arrived Buena Vista yesterday evening, after climbing San Luis Peak earlier in the day. Yes, it had been a long drive from Creede and a late check in at the campground, so I was rather tired in the morning. But I had sincerely hoped that I would be able to climb Harvard and Colombia this morning in order to reach my target of 30 official fourteeners. But the weather was not on my side this day, so I decided to go back to sleep and forget about my 30 peak commitment, at least for a while.
I slept until 09:00, and I realized that the weather had not improved at all, but rather deteriorated. I was too late anyway to climb Harvard and Columbia, thus I decided to take a day off. I spent a rather dull day walking around in Buena Vista. I also went shopping and found an excellent outdoor shop, www.thetrailheadco.com. The owners asked me where I came from, and they unexpectedly started to list all the outdoor brands from Scandinavia . I was very impressed of their knowledge, and the list included brands like Bergans, Ajungilak, Hilleberg etc. Even better was the incredible variety of quality products in the shop. I was pleased to find Primus gas cartridges which had proven to be an impossible task to find in other cities and towns in Colorado. I told the owners that this was the best outdoor shop I had seen in Colorado so far, and I very much recommend it for all hikers and climbers going to Buena Vista.
Later in the day, I also had a chat with the lovely female owner of Mt. Princeton RV-park (www.mtprincetonrvpark.com). She had already granted me an off-season rate of 12 dollars per night, the cheapest campsite I’ve been able to get in Colorado so far. The showers and toilets were really the best and cleanest I’ve ever seen on a campground. She told me, to my surprise, that a couple of other people just had arrived back from a successful attempt on Mt. Harvard. It had been a terrible snowstorm up there, including hazards like lightning, but they had managed to escape the dangers. I kind of felt embarrassed that I had wasted one day in Buena Vista, while other people were up there climbing. Maybe I am a squeamish “sunshine climber” after all (e.g. only climbs when the weather is good)? One day wasted or not, I was still fairly convinced that it would have been a very risky undertaking to climb both Harvard and Colombia on such a bad day, especially on the ridge where I probably would have been very exposed to lightning. The likelihood that I would have decided to abandon one of the peaks anyway, and not be able to complete both peaks, left me convinced that I had not wasted a day but rather increased my chance to climb both peaks the next day.
The weather improved during the evening and I was excited to see a thin layer of snow on top of the highest peaks surrounding Buena Vista. I really looked forward to a sunny and warm day tomorrow, which likely would melt the snow before noon. Then I fell asleep.
I can't find the Trailhead
I woke up 06:10 in the morning. It was still night outside, but I was certain that it was going to be a very sunny day. The drive up to North Cottonwood Trailhead was supposed to be pretty straightforward to find, but I messed up big time. I ended up driving twice as much as necessary and I can only blame myself. Later I found the trailhead description in Gerry Roach’s guidebook to be very accurate and it is as follows:
From the junction in the centre of Buena Vista (stoplight), go north on US 24 for 0,6 km. Turn west onto CC 350 for 3,4 km to a T-junction and turn north (right) onto CC 361. This road turns to dirt at 3,8 km, then angles northwest. At 4,8 km, turn sharply south (left) onto CC 365, which soon turns west and enters the San Isabel National Forest at 8,6 km. Pass the Harvard Lakes Trailhead on the north side of the road at 10,5 km. From this trailhead, continue west, pass the Silver Creek Trailhead on the south side of the road at 10,7 km and reach the North Cottonwood Trailhead at the end of the road at 13,1 km.
The last few kilometres was really rough, and I would not recommend a low clearance vehicle on this road. I arrived the trailhead at 07:10 and I could see four other vehicles as well as some hikers there. I measured the elevation to be 3028 metres. I ate my breakfast in the car and was not ready to leave the trailhead before 07:35.
Mount Harvard (4395m)
Almost immediately I bypassed 2 guys on the trail, and after 2,5 km I arrived an important junction. Here I turned right onto the trail to Horn Fork Basin and Bear Lake. Just below the tree line I bypassed a team of four other hikers. Well above the tree line, I could finally see Harvard to the north at the end of the basin, and Columbia’s steep west slopes on my right side. I continued on the main trail (do not go all the way to Bear Lake!) and climbed grassy benches on Harvard’s gentle south slopes, where I met a 40-50 years old guy. He told me that he was quarter Norwegian and that his grandfather was from Trondheim or nearby. He had almost 30 fourteeners in his collection and Harvard was his last Collegiate peak. He had climbed Columbia yesterday, when I was safely down in Buena Vista, and he told me that the weather had been really bad. We chatted for approx 10 minutes before I continued on the last leg (class 2) and reached Harvard’s boulder strewn summit at 10:25, less than 3 hours after I had started to hike.
Mount Columbia (4289m)
I could hardly see any clouds, so it was an easy decision to continue on the 3,5 km arduous traverse from Harvard to Columbia. I descended east and a little south before I mistakenly followed a narrow trail all the way to Point 13516. I soon discovered that this actually was the start of the Class 5.7 ridge eventually leading to Columbia. But I carried no climbing gear whatsoever, so that route was definitely out of scope. Instead I headed east and started to descend the boulder strewn slopes below Point 13516. After a while I reached easier ground and continued south, well below the connecting ridge’s difficulties. Then I walked up Columbia’s gentle, grassy north slopes to the summit, which I reached 12:50, approx 2 hours after I left Harvard. It was very windy on Columbia, so I only rested for 10 minutes on the summit before I started to descend Columbia’s West Slopes Route. The steep scree slopes was very unpleasant, and at several occasions I had problems staying on my feet. Thus I was pleased to reach the tree line and solid ground, where I followed one of the numerous trails back to the main trail in the Horn Fork Basin. From there I retraced my steps back to North Cottonwood Trailhead, which I reached at 2:15pm.
It had taken me approx 7,5 hours to complete the 22 km long hike, including 1855 metres gain and loss of elevation, a demanding day by any standards.
(I’m referring to the YDS class rating system throughout this article)